Protesters and police clash in a chaotic weekend

For four straight nights, Columbus marched, rallied and chanted — and some people broke windows and looted — overcome with anger at the late May killing of George Floyd, who died while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The cries for justice were also related to the local police killings of black citizens such as Tyre King, Henry Green and Julius Tate Jr., among others.

The protests were largely peaceful, though each night ended in clouds of tear gas and volleys of wooden and rubber bullets, while Saturday’s Downtown rally was marred by a forceful police response that drew criticism from Columbus City Council members such as President Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown, who released a statement citing “heavy-handed aggression by police,” and Council President Shannon Hardin, who was among a crowd pepper-sprayed by officers with the Columbus Division of Police early on Saturday. “I saw police that were not showing as much restraint as what the moment required,” Hardin told Alive by phone later that evening.

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Mayor Andrew Ginther even chimed in on the CPD response on Twitter, writing in a since-deleted thread that “some of what we saw [Saturday] from @ColumbusPolice was aggressive.” (You can view the archived tweets here, the removal of which surely has nothing to do with the criticism the mayor received in a statement released by the Fraternal Order of Police.) The deleted comments struck a harsher tone toward CPD than what Mayor Ginther had posted previously to Twitter. “While we believe the overwhelming response by our officers has been measured and restrained, if we are asking for peace and patience of protestors we must demand the same from our police,” he wrote.

The mayor’s description of a “measured and restrained” police response was met with derision across some social media channels, paired as it was with myriad images of protesters being pepper-sprayed at close range, including Hardin and U.S. congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who later spoke with The Atlantic. “Could it have been handled differently?” Beatty said. “I believe so. I think it was unnecessary force.”

On Twitter, Jeff Simpson, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge #9, took a brief pause from lobbying President Donald Trump to intervene in Columbus in order to suggest that it was actually Beatty who was guilty of assault.

Saturday’s heavy-handed police response followed a Friday in which numerous businesses in Downtown and the Short North had windows smashed out, while some were looted, including Short North sneaker boutique Sole Classics. As a result, Mayor Ginther instituted a citywide 10 p.m. curfew beginning on Saturday, while Gov. Mike DeWine called in the National Guard to assist in policing the crowd. Regardless, a handful of vandalized businesses posted statements to social media that placed fault not with the protesters, but with a legacy of police violence against black citizens.

“So many of you have reached out in support about our windows and we thank you for that,” Short North bike shop Paradise Garage wrote on Facebook. “Yes, two individuals (not a mob of angry protesters) broke our windows and we’re mad. We’re mad that stories get written and told about the suffering of a business or building instead of the daily injustice and racism that exists in our community. ... What has happened over the past few days in our city is a necessary movement that must continue.”

Similar statements were released by Sole Classics, The Candle Lab and Cazuela’s Grill, which wrote that “human beings, justice and equality are far more important than material belongings.”

Ginther also told the Dispatch that Columbus police intelligence pointed to antagonists from outside Columbus, including white nationalists, as those responsible for some of the property damage over the weekend.

Sunday’s protests built slowly, but by mid-afternoon estimates put the number of protesters Downtown in the thousands. Some gathered in front of the Statehouse while others splintered into marches on the streets, filling roadways with honking cars (many of them blasting NWA, and some with riders on top) and hundreds of people holding signs and chanting. On many street corners, organizers offered up free bottles of water. The signs often referenced police actions from the previous days: “Macing peaceful protesters is unacceptable”; “Violent protests are not the story. Police violence is.”

But until early evening, Columbus police presence was minimal. At times, uniformed police looked to be entirely absent — a stark contrast to protests on Friday and Saturday, and a change in tactics Mayor Ginther touted in a Dispatch interview.

One of Sunday’s biggest marches took place about 4:30 p.m. and proceeded north on High Street to Nationwide Boulevard in the Arena District on a route that eventually took protesters directly past Division of Police headquarters on Marconi Boulevard, where the handful of uniformed officers standing outside (sans riot gear) amounted to the only police presence during the entire route. The march culminated in a stop at Broad and High streets, where protesters clogged the intersection and chanted the names of George Floyd, Tyre King and others. For more than 20 minutes, protesters filled the intersection, and other than a helicopter flying overhead, police were not visibly present.

That all changed on Sunday around 8 p.m., two hours before curfew, when law enforcement used pepper gas and what appeared to be rubber and wooden bullets on the crowd at Broad and High streets, ending the night by posing for a group photo.

Perhaps fittingly, all of this weekend’s events unfolded as City Council prepares to gather today at 3:30 p.m. to discuss a measure that would declare racism a public health crisis.